5 Things I’ve Learned As The Parent Of A Trans Kid
I can only speak for what I see, which is through the very privileged lens of a cisgender mom, who occasionally gets a glimpse of what it is to be trans and youthful in today’s world.
My final pregnancy was a piece of cake, and knowing that baby #3 was a boy was just icing on the top. I’d always sort of hoped I’d be a Mom one day. But after losing my first pregnancy in a painful miscarriage, my hopes of becoming a mother only grew more intense. As a little girl, I desperately wanted a big brother instead of the two older sisters I had. Not only were they eight and eleven years older than me, but we fought like cats. At age ten I’d convince myself, “When I become a mom, I’m having a house full of boys!”
Over time I became receptive to the idea of a baby girl though, and honestly, by the time my husband and I got married, I was praying that God would allow me to have one of each. He did. And in each stage of this final pregnancy, which was stacked with intensifying pain as my baby grew abnormally large, I savored every painful moment as the last.
In the predawn hours of an ungodly early Tuesday morning in February 2006, I wobbled, shivering, hoping I’d be able to make the short distance from the parking deck to the hospital entrance. I was in heavy labor, very ready to birth this big boy. There was a feeling of finality because this was going to be it; Matt and I had already decided as much after our son and daughter were born… or so we thought. Turns out, as a family of four there was always this nagging feeling we weren’t quite done yet.
A few intense hours plus a c-section later, he was here. My third (and last) child was adorable and chubby, weighing in at a hefty 9 lbs. 15 oz. — a week early, to boot! Matt and I joked that he looked like a baby baboon; the nurses nicknamed him “Bubba” because that week, he was the biggest baby in the entire birthing center. In the communal nursery where all the infants laid wrapped like burritos, resting in clear plastic basinets, Bubba appeared to be an out-of-place giant, more like a toddler than a new born.
By the time he was a toddler, his Flintstone’s nickname of Bamm-Bamm was already well-established due to his excessive and superhuman strength. By 8 weeks Bamm-Bamm could not only hold a 4 oz. bottle of breastmilk independently, but also would push our hands away if we tried to help.
By 12 months he could walk and run solidly without holding anyone’s hands. By 24 months, he could pull his 60 lb., 8-year-old brother around the driveway in the little red wagon.
With his giant, sky blue eyes, and his golden sun-kissed hair, his look was only complemented with cute clothes — especially the captioned onesies like “Ladies Man,” and “Chick Magnet.”
At that point, no one could foresee that Bamm-Bamm would ultimately end up loving Princess dress up, Polly Pockets, and My Little Pony.
Yes, I eventually learned my youngest child was transgender. And yes, I was (and am still) a little bit scared. But even more than that, I’m fiercely proud.
At this point, it’s crucial that I say I cannot attempt to speak for my child. I will never know what it feels like to be transgender. I can only tell my point of view as a parent, which is through the very privileged lens of a cisgender woman, who occasionally gets a glimpse of what it looks like to be a transgender child in today’s world.
Whenever well-meaning friends or family saw our young son — squealing in delight, dressed in full princess couture — and told us it was just a phase, I somehow knew deep down that it wasn’t. I’d bite my tongue and smile, knowing it was only a matter of time before my son’s feminine expression became “an issue.” Not an issue for me, but for all the other people my child would be existing with out there in the world.
Eventually, I had to make a choice: either allow my child to express himself authentically (which looked more like being a girl), and I could work to ensure him the necessary resources to thrive when the slings and arrows inevitably came, or, I could teach him how to self-censor, to be a little “less” himself — basically, to hide his true self. I could even make a pretty good case that it was for his own good.
Protect. That second option certainly felt safer, more familiar. But it also felt counter-intuitive to my strongest values.
I had raised my kids to, in the words of Judy Garland, “always be a first-rate version of yourself, instead of a second-rate version of somebody else.” What would I be teaching them if I were to tell my youngest to hide his true self? I wasn’t going to shame him for a fundamental, innate part of himself. I wasn’t going to make him feel like there was something wrong with him at his core when I could clearly see there was nothing wrong with him.
So I made an intentional choice to let go — of fear, of society’s judgment, of condemnation, of my worst nightmares. And though I questioned myself constantly over whether I’d made the right decision, I found that the more freedom I gave my child to exist out in the world as his most authentic self, the more positive, confirming feedback I received in return.
I don’t know where my (now) tween will eventually end up on the gender spectrum, or if this journey will even have an absolute end. But I’m open to whatever that looks like as long as my child is happy and not harming others. And though I’ve learned a lot about trans youth over the past decade, I realize I still have only scraped the surface.
For other folks needing a few basics on the always-evolving language of gender, and concepts like how gender is not the same thing as biological sex (a.k.a., sex assigned at birth), and how neither of those things have anything to do with sexual orientation, I wrote this piece: “CISGENDER?! Is That A Disease?!” Or, a primer in gender vocabulary for the curious-minded. If you’re new to this subject matter, I recommend starting there. Otherwise, read on for five things I’ve learned as the parent of a trans kid.
1.) Gender is not binary
Binary means “consisting of two,” as in the case of male or female. But we know there exists more than just male or female. Some of the most revered members of Native American tribes are Two Spirits. Historically, South Asia considered their hijra (third gender) population to be semi-sacred, believed to bring prosperity and fertility to newly married couples. Some countries offer a third gender identification option for Intersex people. On nearly every continent, and for all of recorded history, thriving cultures have recognized, revered, and integrated more than two genders.
Instead of thinking of gender as a binary concept, we’d be better off all around if we could adopt the mindset that gender is a continuum, or spectrum, with maleness on one side, femaleness on the other, and absence of gender in the middle. Everyone has a place on this spectrum ranging from one end to the other, or any other possibility situated in between or overlapping. This spectrum includes identities such as gender nonconforming, gender creative, genderqueer, gender fluid, agender, two-spirit, three-spirit, cisgender, intersex, etc.
The term transgender is simply an umbrella term that encompasses all these different types of identities. Transgender describes anyone whose sex assigned at birth doesn’t match with who they are as a human being in their deeply held, internal sense of self. Trans people aren’t confused; they know who they are with the same conviction that cis people know who they are. Though, they may lack the language or resources to pinpoint the right words describing exactly who they are.
All this lovely beyond-the-binary thinking is problematic in America (among a few other countries) because our culture and our society only fully acknowledges two categories: male or female. Almost everything we do in American culture is segregated by gender.
Some more progressive places now offer online pull-down menus under gender for “other.” But that seems to be the exception, not the norm. There’s also the concept of gender expression, and unfortunately, most of American society hasn’t gotten the memo yet, because if you’re someone whose look falls “outside” of those stereotypical gender norms, then harassment — and even violence against you — is not unusual.
There’s a statement in the book The Transgender Child which I think best sums up this conundrum:
“This binary view of gender is burdened with expectations and rules for each category. The rules dictate the standards for clothing, activities, and behaviors.”
I think burdened is the most fitting word here, because if you’re someone who doesn’t fit neatly into one of those two boxes, life can be pretty rough.
For someone like me with cisgender privilege (meaning my sex assigned at birth, my gender identity, and, for the most part, my gender expression are all in alignment), a binary worldview refers to all kinds of things I’ve taken for granted. I’ve never had to give a second thought to anything regarding my gender identity. I’ve never had to worry about being discriminated against, harassed, mocked, teased, or bullied for being cisgender or heterosexual. For simply being who I am.
But the opposite is my child’s daily experience. I’m so steeped in privilege that it took seeing a glance of the world through the eyes of my trans child, to suddenly open mine to just how oblivious I’d been.
2.) There’s no “right” way to be trans.
There are as many different ways that constitute being a trans person as there are stars in the sky. Being trans doesn’t happen overnight, it’s not a “phase,” and it doesn’t mean that someone has had “the surgery.” There’s no such thing as “not being trans enough.” Likewise, there’s no “right” age to come out. There’s no one right, definitive way to be trans.
Some trans people don’t take puberty blockers or hormones. Some do. Some trans people don’t have any medical procedures or surgeries done. Some do. For the ones who do, they often have to deal with tremendous backlash — society’s prevailing thought of, if you’re a woman and you have your breasts removed, there’s something very wrong with you. Or, if you’re a man who wants your penis gone, there’s something very wrong with you.
Transgender people are born the way they are. Every trans person I’ve met, interviewed, or read about has said that as far back as they can remember, they knew they were trans, even if they lacked the correct terminology for it. They just inherently knew something felt “not right,” or they never understood or identified with peers of their own sex assigned at birth, or had constant thoughts like, “God made a mistake.”
The holy trinity among gender specialists has thus far been ‘insistent, consistent, and persistent,’ meaning that trans people show all three of these traits regarding their gender identity. But that’s not always the case. Throughout this journey I’ve met trans adults well into their 50’s and 60’s who only just transitioned. Often, they tell me their parents and friends say, “we never saw this coming.”
Several of the trans women I know say they were always hyper-masculine in high school, or were considered a “ladies man.” Several proudly served in the military, in combat tours, or as fighter pilots. Several of them entered cisgender, heterosexual marriages and had children. But all of them say they always felt, even from a young age, that something was not right. Some knew what it was, but suppressed it until they just couldn’t anymore.
Over and over again, within the trans community we hear stories of trans kids who are allowed to socially transition. Often these kids have a well-established pattern throughout childhood of being insistent, persistent, and consistent that they are the opposite binary gender. From the earliest stages of verbal communication they’ve said things like “stop calling me a girl; I’m a boy.” Or, “God made a mistake; I’m not supposed to be a boy. In my brain and in my heart I’m a girl.”
My child, however, only said something with insistence once, at a very young age:
“Mommy, you know I’m only a boy ’cause of my parts, right?”
But, considering that all behavior is communication, in hindsight I know my child clearly showed me with insistence, consistence, and persistence that he was not a boy. It didn’t matter whether he was playing indoors or out, with friends or alone, watching TV or reading, eating or sleeping, my child was always wearing his older sister’s hand-me-down princess gowns and ballet costumes. He would’ve bathed in them, had I let him.
Now when I look back at old home movies, I’m overcome with a bittersweet tinge, because how could I have missed this? There’s my sweet baby off in the background, dancing around in one of my ugly, plain, old ripped t-shirts, because he liked the way they fit him — like a dress with a train — more than he liked his older brother’s hand-me-downs or even brand new “boys” clothes. I regret that it was my own fear that took me so long to buy him a dress of his own.
I’ve now come to understand that trans kids don’t transition so much as they grow into who they’re meant to be, just like their cis peers. Rather, it’s all the other people in the trans kids’ lives who have to transition — to learn new pronouns or names, for example.
3.) Everything you need to know about gender is learned before age five, and it’s all wrong.
We like to think kids are all-accepting, but even kindergartners come to school fully invested in gender roles. They know what’s expected and what’s not. At age 5, they report or tattle if someone’s not playing by the gender rules. They police each other’s everything, especially gender. Even if they come from a more open-minded, inclusive family situation, their educational day reinforces the gender binary ad nauseam.
I know, because I volunteered, subbed, and later became a TA at my children’s schools. In one school day, one time I counted 47 instances of gender segregation being reinforced either verbally, physically, or visually— and those were just the instances that happened before lunch.
- “I like the way the girls are working quietly.”
- “We’re splitting into teams: boys against girls.”
- “Who was the main character in the story we just read? That’s right, it was Parker. Is Parker a boy or a girl? How do you know?
- “Girls who need a bathroom or water break, raise your hands.”
- “Can I get 3 strong boys to come move these desks?”
- “Class, don’t forget to have your moms sign these permission slips.”
- “There was too much talking at lunch yesterday. Today you’re sitting boy-girl-boy-girl.”
If I wasn’t hearing it, I was seeing it. Boys being separated or removed from the classroom for misbehaviors way more frequently than girls. Girls being deemed trustworthy enough for certain jobs, like escorting a sick or hurt classmate to the office, but not boys. Classroom libraries lined with gendered fictional books. The prevalence and significance of colors — nametags, labels, or areas of the room in pinks or blues that boys would dominate or girls would avoid. Or vice versa. For example, pink construction paper: boys not touching it, girls fighting over who gets the last piece.
And lastly, it was what I wasn’t hearing or seeing: teachers not challenging students who said things to one another like “you can’t wear pink— that’s a girl’s color!” or “Girls don’t play football!” Adults not addressing gender stereotypes at all, and sometimes even reinforcing them.
Using “gender” to divide children up can be quick and convenient, but it gives them the constant message that being a boy or a girl is the most important, most obvious thing about them, and it reinforces stereotypes. Furthermore, for gender nonconforming or nonbinary students, every time gender segregating happens, it’s yet another time they are falsely reminded their identity does not exist. Getting students to line up or split up a different way — by birthday month, favorite food, shoe color, numerically, alphabetically — can be a subtle but effective way of encouraging them to think about their identity in different ways.
Gender assumptions hurt us all.
4.) Gender is public.
Gender involves everyone around us in society, and what they deem is appropriate or not based on the gender binary. If you don’t fit the mold, you’re labeled negatively. A freak. A tomboy. A sissy. Everyone is raised to be invested in their gender, whether it matches their experience or not. We even map it out for children before they’re born, starting with gender reveal parties in all the cute themes we create like “Glitter or Guns,” “Tutus or Ties,” “Stashes or Lashes,” “Wheels or Heels,” and so on. As such, everyone around us is also invested in our gender. By no means am I trying to pooh-pooh on the idea of these celebratory parties; I’m only suggesting we reflect on them, perhaps in a way that we haven’t before.
As much as many trans people wish their experience could just be private, or at least, uneventful, being trans is a public issue. Which is terrifying. And wrong. In a perfect world this wouldn’t be the case. But because — let’s be honest — it’s pretty difficult to transition gender without anybody noticing.
My child socially transitioned during the summer between 4th and 5th grade. That was hard enough for everyone in my child’s life, and my child was young. When adults transition, they have the life experience to know it isn’t just about them. It’s about everyone and everything they’ve ever invested in… their family, their friends, their communities, their co-workers, their religious communities, their clients. They inherently know how much all these people will struggle with that type of a change, and honestly, they don’t want to inflict that kind of pain on anyone. If they could afford it financially and otherwise, many of them would pick up and move across the country to start fresh.
Unlike being gay, which can be private if that’s what you want — you don’t have to come out of the closet— being trans requires you to come out. Not just come out once and be done with it, either. Being trans forces you — at some point in the journey, if not forever — to come out again, and again, and again, and again. Every time you’re misgendered by a doctor or pharmacist or salesperson, or friend. Every time you have to remind someone in your life that you care about not to “dead name” you. Every time you have to ask co-workers to change the pronouns they’re using, or to address you differently. Every time you’re unintentionally misgendered by strangers in public, especially if they think you’re heading towards the wrong bathroom. Every time you check a “gender” box on applications, intake forms, or legal documents. And on, and on. It quickly becomes exhausting, but trans people know this is their reality, and they deal with it gracefully.
Let’s work to change that reality and make the world more inclusive of all genders.
5.) Those who know nothing about the trans community have the most advice for parents who are raising trans kids.
And trust me, we’ve heard it all. We’ve heard the overused go-to, and it’s always some form of this:
“So, my 3-year-old thinks she’s a kitty cat. Does that mean I should start feeding her cat food and train her to use a litterbox? 😂 Heh, heh, heh.”
We’ve also heard that we caused it or at least encouraged it, and can therefore stop it. That we’re not being a parent, or letting our kids rule the roost. That we’re trying to make our son into the daughter we always wanted (or vice versa). That we’re pushing a “gay agenda,” (regardless of the fact that sexual orientation and gender identity are completely unrelated and have nothing to do with each other). We’re told that we’re forcing labels on our kids who are simply “too young to understand the complexities of gender!” Ironically, it usually ends up being the Mom who threw that “Glitter or Guns” gender reveal party who says we shouldn’t be forcing gender labels on kids who are too young to understand them.
More dangerous, though, are the ignorant comments we tend to hear from folks who tell us that what we’re doing (affirming our childrens identities) amounts to “child abuse.” (It doesn’t.)
The number of people identifying in the TGNC (trans and/or gender nonconforming) community is increasing. This is not because it’s a fad, a phase, or the latest hip thing to do. It’s because it’s a little bit safer to come out now. There’s more awareness and there’s more visibility. Perhaps most importantly, there’s a generation of parents who understand that shaming, beating, or otherwise forcing the “trans” out of their kids not only does irreparable damage, but doesn’t work.
With my family of five now complete (and not getting any younger!) I find it an enourmous gift to sit back and watch as all three of them make me proud in their own unique ways. When I prayed so long ago that God would allow me to have one child of each gender and then He did? I never imagined how lucky I’d end up, how completely fulfilled, with exactly one of each.
Call to action:
One simple, small gesture anyone can do right now — that makes a huge impact — is to put your own pronouns in your email signature. It only takes a few seconds to do, but it communicates so much. For TGNC folks, you’re showing you’re an ally. For the rest of the population, you’re setting an example. I know it might sound ridiculous; it takes some time to get used to seeing. But there’s this pretty cool transition that happens where you become so accustomed to seeing pronouns attached to names (in email, on nametags, on doorplates, etc.) that you end up expecting to see them everywhere.
Martie Sirois, she/her/hers